Patois my children's weakest language, my strongest
Kerry's little ones Taiyu, 4, and Kaiza, 2.

I recently heard Japan-based bilingualism author Adam Beck explain one of his reasons for raising his children bilingual: "I wanted them to know me, at the deepest level…and I felt like if I was going to use Japanese with them, or if they didn't acquire strong enough English, then they couldn't really know me in a soulful way."

It could've been me right there on that YouTube channel talking. Of course, the big difference is that my real soul language is patois. I don't feel that connecting with my children in English is insufficient, but patois adds a dimension.

In my daily life in Japan, there are few to zero opportunities to use patois. However, I remember complaining about this to an older colleague some time after having my first child. He said, 'Talk to your son, he will understand you'.

More recently, another Jamaican mother here overheard some questions to me about whether my children spoke patois. My response, filled with myself, was something to the tune of, 'Oh, I try. I want them to at least understand, blah blah'. Her advice? 'Baby will understand whatever mommy speaks'.

As my son has got older, as he has learned to pull my strings, as I have settled into parenting, I have started to speak more patois. My main reason for not using much of it before was that my Japanese husband did not speak it, I didn't speak Japanese. English was a middle ground.

But my children are fresh slates who will learn the languages they hear. They hear Japanese from most people, English from a few and patois from me, and me alone. This creates an input deficit apparent in my son's attempts to speak, and also to decipher my utterings.

He is a boy who likes climbing. I often admonish him saying, 'Yuh a go drap an bruk yuh bahind.' His response is always, 'What will happen if I drop and broke my bahind?'

Me: Yuh wi find out when yu drap an bruk yu bahind.

Him: What is bahind?

Me: You will find out when yu drap …

He gets annoyed and keeps asking, 'What is bahind?' I keep saying the same thing. And I don't know if he has figured it out. But what is bahind, really? It's not just your physical behind, is it?

On the subject of body parts in patois, the only Jamaican sayings he knows is 'yeye nuh sell a shap'. He's now started to ask what else no sell a shap. Hand no sell a shap? Foot no sell a shap? Elbow no sell a shap?

So I am noticing that where he used to be confounded by some things, he is experimenting with them. For example, I remember once I shouted at him, "put ih pan ih table". The boy's response: "Panih? What is panih?" Sometimes he starts some behaviour I don't approve of and I might say, "Nuh badda wid ih". Him: "What is wid ih?" Well, on waking one recent morning, he might have been benefiting from the great brain work they say happens when you sleep. The first words out of his mouth: "Doodo pon ih kowntah".

There is never any doodoo on the counter in our house. Incidentally, doodo is one of only a few words my two-year-old daughter says clearly.

Anyway, for all his experimenting, my son still gets confused when I say "Gwaan go bade", and will tell me that it's not yet bedtime. One one coco, right?

Kerry Furukawa recently gave up full-time employment to have more time with her family. A Jamaican living in Japan, she has hopes of contributing to the wider parenting discussion. E-mail her at


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